Tony Stewart has not been having the best of seasons, and only scraped into the Chase at all in the final race at Richmond. But if he and his fans were despairing of Smoke being able to make any impression in the post-season shoot-out, those doubts were dramatically swept away when his first victory of 2011 coincided with this first round of the Chase.
After the drama of Sunday's washout, it seemed that the race itself was going to be a rather business-like affair. But it turned out to be a race with a tense last few laps of fuel-conservation that dramatically claimed some big Chase names before the chequered flag came out.
Following the long overnight wait, Matt Kenseth finally led the field to the green flag at the start of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway at 11.13am local time on Monday morning. He led Kurt Busch and the field throughout the first 30 laps until the pre-scheduled competition caution to allow teams to check out the state of the cars on the washed-clean surface of the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
Kyle Busch gambled on taking only two tyres under the caution and emerged in the lead, but it was brother Kurt who had the genuine form at this early stage and who quickly pulled out a big lead over Greg Biffle as the #18 started to slip back on its older rubber.
A yellow flag on lap 70 for debris put an end to the 2.6s lead that Kurt had built up. The #22 got the best of the four-tyre pit stops and retained the lead for the restart ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Menard, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch. Once again, Kurt shot out ahead of his rivals in no time flat, while further back it was a great restart for Kevin Harvick who had been trailing back in 16th but who jumped up to tenth in just a few laps after the track went green.
Jimmie Johnson was also flying and up to third, but things were not looking so good for Denny Hamlin who had to head onto pit road under the green flag complaining of vibration and needing a new set of tyres, and who dropped to 37th - hardly the start he wanted to the post-season after squeezing into the Chase on the final wildcard, especially with the top eight runners at this point of the race consisting of his Chase rivals.
Greg Biffle had previously been up there in the top ten, but he was forced to drop back with an unscheduled pit stop of his own. "We didn't figure out what it is yet, something fell off," said Biffle when asked what had happened. "It definitely hurt our chances today though. Fuel mileage was something, but we were handicapped ... We had more problems today than fuel mileage."
Kurt Busch's impressive reign in front was finally ended by Carl Edwards on lap 104, who swiftly pulled out a 0.7s lead as green flag pit stops loomed. Jeff Gordon was the first, making a slightly premature stop on lap 108 for an apparent problem with his right front tyre and ending up a lap down, before others started to stream in shortly afterwards.
Carl Edwards continued to lead after his stop, ahead of Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson who were fighting hard - but remarkably cleanly, given their flare-up last week at Richmond - for second place. Edwards opened up a 3s lead at one point during his part of the race, until Johnson finally won the battle for second position and started to close up on the leader. Finally the matter became academic when a caution came out for debris on the backstretch on lap 145